Drawing Birds

Drawing Birds

by John Busby, John Busby

Birds are inspirational subjects for any artist: the variety of shapes, colors, sizes, movements, and contexts means that anyone with an interest in drawing or painting from life will find birds challenging and deserving of their time. This book is written for a range of people — for beginners taking their first steps in a knotty subject, for more


Birds are inspirational subjects for any artist: the variety of shapes, colors, sizes, movements, and contexts means that anyone with an interest in drawing or painting from life will find birds challenging and deserving of their time. This book is written for a range of people — for beginners taking their first steps in a knotty subject, for more experienced artists wishing to tackle birds in flight, and for anyone who simply wants to see birds afresh. This book is published in association with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). As Europe's biggest wildlife conservation charity, with over 170 nature reserves, the RSPB brings the spectacular beauty of wild birds to millions of people. The business of conservation is often scientific and political — matters largely for the head. But birds enrich our lives in many ways. Drawing them is perfect for clearing the clutter of our daily lives, reconnecting with nature and reaffirming the purpose of nature conservation.

Editorial Reviews

International Hawkwatcher
"Provides comments and discussions in varying degrees of detail about numerous bird drawings and paintings done by many artists from historic times to the present. Along the way, beginning and more experienced bird artists learn helpful tips regarding how to improve their own bird drawings and paintings."—International Hawkwatcher, June 2005
Hobby Greenhouse
"A fascinating insight into the art of bird drawing."—Robin Wilt, Hobby Greenhouse, Summer 2005
— Robin Wilt
Hobby Greenhouse - Robin Wilt
"A fascinating insight into the art of bird drawing."—Robin Wilt, Hobby Greenhouse, Summer 2005

Product Details

Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.24(w) x 9.96(h) x 0.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

To understand any living creature and how it moves, you do need to know what lies beneath the surface. You need to be familiar with the basic anatomical structure of a bird's body, and also how the feathers that form the surface plumage are grouped together. In time this knowledge will become second nature, informing your seeing and raising the level of your drawing.

In some ways a bird is a simple form when compared to an animal. Most of its bones and muscles are out of sight behind feathers, and there are fewer basic differences in form within the range of species than there are among mammals. However, birds can change their outer shape disconcertingly at times by fluffing out their feathers or pulling them in tight to the body.

In detail, the bones of the body need not concern the artist, though they are as fascinating as those of any creature — light and finely moulded for strength. Pelvis and back vertebrae are fused into an almost rigid structure to give strength for flight, and to help the bird to balance on two legs. These hidden bones can be sensed by a single axis line as I suggested earlier, but there is an equally important part of the body structure to be aware of — the keel or breast-bone, together with the strong tripod of bones linking it to the shoulders. Here we find the heaviest bones in a bird's body, the coracoids, and the familiar wishbone. (For simple drawing purposes these bones can be represented by a halter-like oval forming the bird's chest.)

Attached to the keel are the powerful flight muscles, those that lift and depress the wings. (The lifting muscles, the minor pectorals, work through a pulley-like hole — a unique feature of birds — between the shoulder bones and are attached to the top of the humerus.)

The rigid vertebrae of the body give way to a very flexible neck that contains, not the seven bones of all mammals, but a variable number. Most birds have 14 neck vertebrae, though swans, for instance, have 23. The neck can be stretched or folded into an S-shape to bring the head close to the body, enabling the bird to use its bill to fulfil the various functions of preening, feeding and nest building.

In flight, birds present an amazing range of movement and angles of view. The wing bones are not unlike those of a human arm, and I will say more about them in the chapter on flight. When not in use, the wings are neatly folded to the bird's side, leaving the long primary (wing-tip) feathers to overlap above the tail. Except in very large birds like herons or eagles, the rest of the wing is partially hidden by overlapping feathers on the shoulders and flanks. In larger birds the 'wrist' joint is often visible, as is the case when birds prepare for flight. A bird stretches its wings regularly, usually a wing and a leg on the same side at the same time. This is a beautiful action to watch.

On land, the legs are all important, and here the hidden bone structure is vital to an understanding of balance. All back legs spring from a pelvis of some kind. That of a bird is not big and boney and leaves no bump on the surface, but you need to sense the hidden starting point of the legs quite far back along the axis of the spine. If you imagine a crouching person, there will be a zigzag from pelvis to the knees then back to the heels and forward to the toes. You will remember from a chicken leg that the muscular 'drum stick' has limited movement and points forward. From knee to heel the bone articulates through 180 degrees, and though most of the shin remains behind feathers, and is feathered itself over the muscular part, you can usually see enough of an angle above the heel to guess the whereabouts of the knee. It will do no harm in your sketches to put in the hidden zigzag whenever you draw legs until you can balance a bird with absolute assurance.

The knobbly ankle joint is difficult to see clearly in the field, and it is useful to make studies from tame or dead birds in order to understand it. In the foot, the tarsal and metatarsal bones are fused as far as the toes, with a strong tendon running down the back. On the shanks of the legs and feet, feathers usually give way to scales, owls and some game birds being among exceptions. There are large scales down the front and smaller ones on the sides and back. In swimming birds such as grebes and cormorants, the tarsus presents a narrow surface to the water and is broad in side view. Birds' feet, like their bills, are enormously varied in shape and function. They are not easy to draw and one should not assume one bird's foot is like another's. You will come to know each species' peculiarities as you draw them.

Most birds have four toes, with the usual arrangement of three in front and one behind. Some running birds have very small hind toes or have lost them altogether. Pelicans, cormorants and Gannets have all four toes webbed. Woodpeckers can bring their outer toe to the rear to give two in front and two behind — an advantage on a vertical surface. Kingfishers and bee-eaters have forward toes that are only partially separated.

Whatever the toe formula, the number of joints in the toes remains the same — the hind toe has two, the inner three, the centre toe four and the outer, usual the longest, five. The bones reduce in size as they increase in number. This gives a more flexible outer toe for wrapping around a branch, and a strong, hook-like rear toe to anchor a bird when perched. The tendon automatically locks the feet when the leg is drawn up to the body. In flight the feet may be drawn up under the body clenched, or stretched out under the tail. (Remember, even then the knees point forwards.)

The most active part of a bird is its head, carrying those ever alert eyes and the beak, its all-purpose precision instrument. The skull is shaped rather like the pumice stone you use in the bath. It tapers to the beak and is broadest at the apex of the eye socket just behind the eye. This socket is large for the proportions of the skull, and one can often see the presence of the ridge of bone above the eye. The change of form here from top of head to side is most abrupt round the eye. There is often a noticeable eyebrow, emphasised by light and shade and particularly obvious in a gull or an eagle.

The shape and position of the eye is a vital clue in setting the angle of the head. As the head turns, the eye becomes more elliptical. Spend some time with tame birds just drawing heads and eye placings. Highlights can help to show the convex surface of the eyes, but they need careful observation or they will become mechanical additions: one does not always see a highlight in the field. Above all, a bird's eye should express an outward-looking energy.

Beaks come in all shapes and sizes, designed for a bird's feeding habits rather than for their other many uses. In the field, quite subtle differences between the beaks of closely relates species — sandpipers, for instance — can be critical factors in their identification. When the beak is open, the jaw is hinged beyond the visible gape of the mouth, towards the base of the skull. Too often one sees an open beak drawn like an Easter chicken, or completely unhinged. Some birds have a degree of flexibility in the upper mandible. This is very noticeable in a parrot, for example, and even a long-billed bird like a snipe can flex the tip of its probing beak. The eye must always be placed above a line between the upper and lower mandibles, but watch out for a change of angle in birds with very hooked beaks.

Feathers do not grow evenly from the skin of a bird as hairs do from animals. They grow in clusters from tracts or pterylae. The tracts are found covering the head (divided into sub-units), running down the spine and over the pelvis to cover the back and rump, and running on each side of the body to cover the upper breast and flanks. Another tract produces the scapular feathers, which cover the shoulders; another feathers the ventral areas, and yet other tracts give rise to the wing and tail feathers and those covering the legs. Between the tracts there will be either down feathers or bare skin.

The fact that feathers form groups makes drawing easier. However beautiful and complicated a bird's plumage, make sure of the feather masses before drawing individual feathers. The edges of these masses are often marked by a change of pattern or colour, which makes them easier to see. Head feathers are usually small but a bird may carry a crest or a ruff. Feathers on the forehead may be raised in display, and those on the throat in song. Neck feathers give an impression of bulk, but this is an illusion. When a bird draws its neck into the body, the feathers seem to dissolve into each other but they move with the neck and swivel against the body feathers as the neck turns. This is very noticeable in a domestic fowl or an owl, and is one of the most important lines to look for when drawing, as the elliptical section it gives will help to make a bird look solid. (Ellipses create the illusion of circles turning in space, so if you can draw circles from any angle, you can draw almost anything!)

Once the main body feather masses are understood as groups, it is easier to see both the behaviour and solidity of a bird and the true garment-like purpose of all those hundreds of individual feathers. A bird preens in order to make each feather a part of the whole covering, so there is no compelling reason for the artist to do the opposite and paint them one at a time.

Studies of dead birds are an important part of learning the finer details of a bird's body, especially feet and bills, and the subtleties of plumage not so easily seen in the field. So take advantage of every opportunity to draw a freshly dead bird. The studies from dead birds by Durer, Pisanello and, of course, Tunnicliffe are works of art in their own right. I think a dead bird should look dead and take whatever form is appropriate to its resting place.

In time a knowledge of the essential anatomy of a bird becomes an intuitive part of seeing and provides the key to drawing a bird in any position with conviction.

Meet the Author

John Busby has been drawing birds for over 60 years. As a former lecturer at Edinburgh Art College and a founding member of the Society of Wildlife Artists, his unique talent and understanding of bird art have inspired many. As well as John's own drawings and paintings, this book contains pieces from 37 other bird artists—including many of the world's foremost figures. Their work, informed by hard-earned field skills, embraces a wide range of styles and approaches, making this book not only a tool for learning, but also a display of the best in bird art today.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >